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The Real and Rowdy Lydia Loveless Is So Over “The Alt-Country Songstress Bonanza”

The Ohio songwriter talks about her sonic evolution on new album 'Real,' her relationship with death, and the documentary 'Who Is Lydia Loveless?'

17 August 2016, 7:05pm

There are some striking similarities between Lydia Loveless' new album, Real, and her favorite record, Pleased To Meet Me by The Replacements. Most importantly, both groups share the "Midwestern thing"—an attitude and sound pervasive in the region, defined by isolation, aggression, cynicism, and dark humor, but also a strangely resilient hopefulness. Both albums arrive around the same time career-wise, and each fight to carve out new sonic directions. The departure (or firing) of Bob Stinson, and the evolution of Paul Westerberg's songwriting pushed The Replacements into more poppy territory with tracks like "Alex Chilton," and Loveless embraces her love of pop and her own songwriting evolution on Real, attempting to leave behind a sound that might, as she says, lead people to continue to pigeon-hole each of her albums as, "The New Alt-Country Songstress Bonanza." The comparisons continue when she talks about why "Never Mind" is her favorite track from Pleased To Meet Me.

"There's just one specific thing that Paul does with his voice that I think is so… it's kind of perfectly Paul Westerberg," Loveless says over the phone from Columbus, Ohio. "I don't know why that song speaks to me so much. It's angry without being off-the-rails or rowdy. It just contains so much emotion. And just how he says, 'all over but the shouting!' Like, it gets me. It puts this tingle in my spine. That's probably the worst description of why that's my favorite, but I love that song."

"Angry without being off-the-rails or rowdy" could describe most of Loveless' output—barring her searing live sets, which definitely enter rowdy territory—but she's also got her own spine-tingling vocal habits. No matter how far she ventures into new territories of sound, that powerful, lonesome wail, often breaking into fiery vibrato, carries her punk and honky-tonk roots along, the same way Paul Westerberg's gritty sneer reveals his skid roots even on a horn-and-string-laden hit like "Can't Hardly Wait." Real's first single, "Longer," is all sparkling, synth-dipped rock, but its sheen is never overly polished, thanks to her Ohio drawl driving home lines like, "sitting in the dark, talking about my plans / to anyone who can hear over this shitty Indianapolis band."

But ditching her punk and country roots completely was never part of the plan. Loveless—as well as the recording of Real and some touring—was the subject of a recently released documentary called Who Is Lydia Loveless? At the beginning of it, she says, "I have a lot of different sides to my personality, so I'm still working on the whole unifying them thing. Not that I'm Sybil, or anything. But I'm still trying to bring all the craziness together." Real has brought her a little closer to achieving that, at least musically.

"I think everyone listens to a broad range of music—no one's sitting around listening to jazz all the time or whatever—but I guess trying to shed that 'honky-tonk punk' outlook everyone has about me. I'm really into pop music, especially power-pop, and I wanted to bring that into the record and I think we successfully did that, finally. It's trying to shed the one-sidedness of genre-specific descriptions."

For someone who's had critics consistently (and lazily) toss her into the "Saviors of Country Music" fire, that's an uphill battle.. You'd think it's feel like even more of a battle with cameras rolling constantly, trying to capture insights into her art and process, all while she tries to forge a brand new answer to the question, "Who is Lydia Loveless?" but Loveless has a strict no-bullshit policy in the studio.

"I kind of told everyone that I'd kill them if they got involved in the recording and messed anything up," she says. "Because that's the most important thing to me: making records and being uninterrupted. So that was the easiest, because I think they knew I was gonna fly off the handle if anyone stuck a camera somewhere or said something or interrupted or were like, 'Do that again, please!'"

The studio is one thing—a fairly easy environment to control—but a documentary being filmed about you raises all sorts of weird, existential questions about who you are, at least at the time it's happening. It's a detailed snapshot, sure, but as a public person, it's one of the only versions of you people see (unless another documentary happens). When filming started, Loveless was 23, and at 25 now, there are parts of the doc she realizes she doesn't feel the same way about anymore. Some of those aspects are simple changes—"I'd like to think I'm a bit more delicate now, if that's possible," she says—but some are things that don't really change at all, like the uneasy process of re-visiting parts of your life you'd rather not.

"I don't do well with it," she says. "I try to be as honest of a person as possible but at a certain point you have to have some privacy, and there are a lot of things I don't like talking about. My childhood is one of them. That's why pretty much every interview you'll ever read with me is like, 'Grew up on a farm in Coshocton. The end.' There's not a lot of super varied detail. Which is something I've struggled with. I'd like to have a more interesting background. But it's just not something I feel super comfortable talking about."

While there is maybe one part of where she grew up that she can be a little nostalgic about, it doesn't involve Coshocton: "I miss the land, for sure, the farm I grew up on. But the town can suck a big dick, really." And she has some good reasons for that.

"I never go there. I've been back a couple times, but it's an awful, awful place. I think everyone's selling meth now, basically. That's the number one job. The Sheriff's Department completely collapsed because of corruption, I think twice, so it was very self-governed. If there was a problem, all the dudes would go—at least where I was, a little outside of Coshocton proper–but it was like, 'Everyone grab your gun and start lookin' for the criminals!' It's a very, very feral place."

It's not surprising then, in the midst of all this rural Midwestern weirdness, that Loveless would develop a preoccupation with death, one that's only gotten stronger. There's a fatalist attitude that runs through a lot of her music, and Real is no exception.

"I'm pretty obsessive about it, especially recently," she says. "I've had a couple friends and acquaintances pass away in the past couple years, and a lot of my friends have terminal illnesses. It seems like you can't throw a rock and not hit cancer at this point. So I guess I've been thinking about it a lot. I also have anxiety and panic attacks where people are like, 'What are you anxious about?' and I'm like, 'Everyone I love will be dead someday!' I don't know! I'm just freaking out. So I guess that was a big part of that. Specifically I had a pretty close friend pass away, that's what I wrote "Longer" about. I think everything was stemming from that period of major change and trying to adjust to getting older and losing people. Which I thought happened in your 50s, but apparently not."

Another weighty topic that shows up a couple times is Loveless' "pretty contentious" relationship with God. "I was the kind of teenager who took a purity vow and wrote hymns in my journal. But not so much anymore," she says. She mentions that she's going through a "very transitional phase with all that," and says although she has a bit of a distaste for religion, she's still spiritual.

"I definitely think there's gotta be something, because there's always something bigger than everything else," she says. "But I don't think it's some dude that's watching over us like, 'Thank God for getting us home! And thank God for this check!' But that wasn't God who got you cancer and got you hit by a car? That was something else? I think God's probably a little bit more passive than we give him credit for. And it's probably a woman, let's face it."

Throwing those feelings into a country song seems like a pretty natural fit—and the album's one sparse acoustic number, "Clumps," is indeed devastating—but Loveless' commitment to "be better" meant fitting them into pop songcraft. Before and during recording, the band listened to a lot of Prince and The Cars, and Loveless' guitar work, thanks to endless touring, is more nuanced than ever, "not just chugging along on chords anymore." Her decidedly heavy subject matter, combined with this poppy-but-substantial songwriting progression, is an exhilarating mix on tracks like the jangly, atmospheric "Heaven," with its borderline funky riff, or the woozy sway of "Midwestern Guys."

Still, the decline of the old music industry and Loveless' stubborn Midwestern work ethic—the same that drives songwriters like Paul Westerberg—almost guarantee that no matter how much of a pop shine her tempestuous rock 'n' roll gets, she's still going to have to hit the road to make it work. But she knows that's always been part of the deal. And you can join the caravan if you're cool with unconventional payment.

"I see people where I'm like, 'Oh, that person's way more successful than me,' and they're still just chillin' in the van and eating Cheetos. So I guess if you really wanna make anything sincere, you sort of have to be the road dog and be prepared for that. There are so many people who come up to me and say, 'I wanna do what you're doing! Where's the bus?' And I'm like, 'This is just kinda what it is!' It's cool, I enjoy it. But we definitely live in a different environment than the 70s, where you have the road photographer and the road journalist and the huge team of people and everyone's decorating their hotel rooms and getting entire floors, or whatever people did. Because people will ask me, 'Can I work for you? Can I do this?' And I'm like, 'Co you mind being paid in McDonald's cheeseburgers?'

'Real' is out August 19 via Bloodshot Records. Catch Lydia on the road with Drive-By Truckers and Tommy Stinson all summer long:

August 20 /// Cincinnati, OH /// Northside Yacht Club (solo)#
September 8 /// Columbus, OH /// Ace Of Cups
September 9 /// Indianapolis, IN /// The HiFi
September 10 /// Madison, WI /// The Frequency
September 11 /// Milwaukee, WI /// Colectivo on Prospect
September 14 /// Champaign, IL /// The Accord
September 15 /// St. Louis, MO /// The Duck Room at Blueberry Hill
September 16 /// Louisville, KY /// Zanzabar
September 17 /// Cleveland, OH /// Grog Shop
September 20––25 /// Nashville, TN /// AmercianaFest
September 24 /// Minneapolis, MN /// First Avenue*
September 25 /// Sioux Falls, SD /// The District*
September 28 /// Missoula, MT /// The Wilma*
September 29 /// Seattle, WA /// The Showbox*
September 30 /// Portland, OR /// Wonder Ballroom*
October 1 /// Portland, OR /// Wonder Ballroom*
October 2 /// Vancouver, BC /// Rickshaw*
October 5 /// Sacramento, CA /// Ace of Spades*
October 6 /// San Francisco, CA /// The Fillmore*
October 7 /// San Francisco, CA /// The Fillmore*
October 8 /// Stateline, NV /// Montbleu Rescort Casino*
October 11 /// Los Angeles, CA /// Teragram Ballroom*
October 12 /// Los Angeles, CA /// Teragram Ballroom*
October 13 /// Solana Beach, CA /// Belly Up*
October 14 /// San Luis Obispo, CA /// The Fremont Theater*
October 15 /// Scottsdale, AZ /// Live Wire*
October 18 /// Austin, TX /// Antone's
October 19 /// Houston, TX /// Continental Club
October 21 /// Birmingham, AL /// The Saturn
October 22 /// Atlanta, GA /// Terminal West
November 4 /// Pontiac, MI /// Pike Room
November 5 /// Toronto, ON /// Adelaide Hall
November 6 /// Ithaca, NY /// The Dock
November 7 /// Burlington, VT /// Higher Ground
November 9 /// Portsmouth, NH /// The Music Hall Loft
November 10 /// Allston, MA /// Great Scott
November 11 /// Philadelphia, PA /// MilkBoy
November 12 /// Charlottesville, VA /// The Southern
November 13 /// Washington, DC /// Rock & Roll Hotel
November 15 /// Pittsburgh, PA /// Club Cafe
November 16 /// New York, NY /// –Bowery Ballroom
November 19 /// Chicago, IL /// Metro

*with Drive-By Truckers
#with Tommy Stinson

Matt Williams would hold out for Big Macs. He's on Twitter @MattGeeWilliams.